Chelsea Hrynick Browne is no stranger to public art. The mixed media, abstract artist has been creating large-scale public installations for over a decade. Based in New York City and Sag Harbor, Browne’s work activates storefronts and public spaces, often with the help of local communities. Her work has appeared on many surfaces, including universities and hospitals. In her latest project, whimsically titled Sparkling Garden, she collaborated with the Children’s Museum of the East End and the talented residents in the Sag Harbor area of the Hamptons to create new public works for the Kaufman Arcade Building in New York’s Garment District, on view through May 27th. We spoke with her about the importance of art in both personal and public healing.
Annabel Keenan: You’ve made a name for yourself as an artist working on public installations, and you also work on smaller scales and in a variety of media. When did you start making art? Are there specific themes you address in your work?
Chelsea Hrynick Browne: I’ve been making art my whole life. My artwork is highly intuitive. I consider myself a visually sensitive person, and I have a mathematical background. I am interested in creating opportunities and fostering creative communities aligned with building new pieces and practices. A lot of my art relates to healing. When I am not working on artwork that is inspiring me, I fall into anxiety and depression. Art is a tool I use to interact with and learn about reality. I listen to books while working and reflect on the artwork materially, socially and financially. I believe art has a potent supernatural quality to it, and I feel it has become the bones to which my life needs to be supported. I am much healthier, happier, hopeful and helpful when I am working on art and being valued for my creativity and work ethic.
AK: That’s a really beautiful way of describing the role of art as a tool through which people can heal. When we first met at The National Arts Club, you mentioned some of your previous and current public art projects, including collaborations with hospitals and health centers. How did you first start making public art? What do you think makes a successful public art installation?
CHB: I first got into public art when I was in college. I made artwork for UW Health, the hospital part of the University of Wisconsin. I think successful public artwork looks great, is inspiring spiritually and/or intellectually, comes from a place of love and is conscious about its viewers, but not overly catering to them. If public artwork can elevate the area it is in and the area it is in can elevate the artwork, that’s a wonderful partnership.
AK: What really interested me when we first met was your current project with The Garment District Alliance, an installation that includes works by children from the Children’s Museum of the East End. How did you become involved with the museum?
CHB: A mom blogger connected me to the Children’s Museum of the East End (CMEE) at the beginning of Covid. I was new out east and looking for places to be involved with artistically that I could add value to. This will be my third project with them. I enjoy working with kids and the institution is a lovely, imaginative and kind place. The other two projects were on site and they were a window installation and art workshops with hand-cut paper and rainbow ribbons.
AK: How did the project with The Garment District Alliance come to fruition?
CHB: As an artist interested in public art, I am always looking for open-calls. I applied for a mural project for the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which wasn’t accepted, but that gave me an opportunity to pitch the idea for an installation with beautiful, shining fabric scraps for a window space that The Garment District offers to artists. When this was accepted, I reached out to CMEE to see if they’d be interested in a collaborative project with kids, and they loved the idea. The works on view were all done specifically for the installation.
AK: That’s awesome that you were able to bring your work with CMEE into your public art practice here in the city. I’m sure the children enjoy seeing their work on view. Did you provide the children with instructions for the way the works should look?
CHB: The only instructions were that they should be collages of recycled fabric on canvas tiles. I facilitated workshops with the kids and was happy to help those who needed and wanted it. Many children had a strong, natural idea of what they wanted to create and were drawn to specific colors or shapes. Some children who came with their siblings ended up creating two tiles as collaborations. I thought this was really sweet. All the children had parents and/or babysitters with them and I found that they took on a helping role in assemblage and design. The caregivers enjoyed the process themselves and were helpful and supportive. The staff at CMEE was helpful in overall flow, I am very grateful and admire their direct and kind approach to leadership. Some children wanted to take their fabric tiles home and that was totally fine.
AK: Will the installation become a part of the museum’s collection when it is taken down, or returned to the individual artists?
CHB: It will be at the museum!
AK: That’s great for the kids involved. What was the highlight of the installation for you?
CHB: Seeing how happy people were at CMEE during the creation process. Kids, caregivers and staff enjoyed the activity. For me, it was fun to see CMEE staff who were originally not planning on participating artistically pick up fabric and paint and make their own tiles after the workshops ended. I included these within the installation as well.
AK: I love that people changed their mind about participating. It’s nice to see art push people out of their comfort zones.
CHB: Definitely. I also always love to meet passersby when doing an installation. I like these moments of connection, not in looking for admiration for the work, but in awe of how creating artwork simultaneously opens doors to new places and avenues of meeting people with diverse opinions and backgrounds. Art is a wonderful common ground that people can connect over. I like being in a space where I can share what I’ve worked on and connect openly with people rather than worry about their opinions of it. I don’t get too attached to the artwork, I like connecting with people, especially after working alone for many hours during the creation process.
AK: One of the first things we talked about at The National Arts Club was how repurposed materials can be used in art to give something that would otherwise be discarded a new life. In many ways, your reuse of materials is another extension of your artwork as a conduit for healing. By repurposing materials, you are contributing to a healthier planet. It also relates to an earlier project of yours titled Angel, in which you repurposed past public art projects into a collaged work on canvas. How did you decide to make this work?
CHB: I made this in the spring of 2020. I was restless and eager to make new artwork and wanted to create something of beauty, strength and peace. I wanted to create a statement piece that held weight, yet was also delicate, balanced and hinted at a greater story behind its creation. As this was at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed natural to use pieces I already had under my bed, which were 8″ by 8″ collages from a previous installation in NYC. I had over 200 of these.
Using old artwork allows me to reevaluate my life, my thoughts, my experiences with a new perspective, and I find this deeply therapeutic and consciousness expanding. Similar to looking through old diaries. There are the memories we keep, the thoughts we have in our heads of things of the past, and then there are the actual documents and accounts written. When I am confronted with the past it can be uncomfortable and repetitive, redundant and trigger rumination. However, if I am able to look at the past and come to conclusions and understandings of a greater reality that I am existing in and gain appreciation and insight, this can be incredibly healing and transformative in propelling forward.
AK: That’s a really nice way to think of your art as a diary. Can you share what’s next for you or any other projects you’re working on?
CHB: Crossed fingers! I have a few ideas in the works.
Sparkling Garden is on view through May 27th at the Kaufman Arcade Building, 132 W 36th St, New York, NY 10018
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer focusing on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine among others. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.